Beethoven 1808

Beethoven: The 1808 Concert | Live

Nigel Jarrett was at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, on January 19 to relive a celebrated event in the history of music: Beethoven’s 1808 concert in Vienna.

There are two ways of replicating the famous all-Beethoven concert of December 22 1808 in Vienna and, for that matter, any other held before the advent of recording and therefore beyond living memory. That’s apart from turning the concert hall’s heating off. Beethoven was a fixer, composer, conductor and impresario at the marathon presentation, when no fewer than four of his works were premièred. As it was a benefit concert, and despite freezing temperatures, the programme also included three other pieces, one split into two separate extracts. Stories of the composer wearing fingerless mittens are credible but apocryphal. He may also not have done as much of the conducting as later accounts suggest.

How to re-construct? As here, the programme could be presented in its original sequence and with more thorough preparation – the 1808 one was flawed by insufficient rehearsal and other factors – so that at least a feel could be gained for what three days before Christmas two centuries ago must have been a stuffed goose of delights. Or authenticity of another sort could be attempted by trying to make the music sound as it did at that first concert at the Theater an der Wien (or would have, had conditions been more favourable). Some hope. At best and with the benefits of scholarship, it would be educated and inspired guesswork. Yet it often seems as though the useful Period Performance movement, once paramount in recent times, has been boxed into a museum annexe, playing to itself but no longer influencing modern orchestras in dealing today with the music of yesterday. Such a view might depend, though, on the range of music one listens to regularly.

In the case of Beethoven and his times, matters of pitch, dynamism, and tempo were different in orchestras of the Viennese kind from the start of the 19th-century on. Not aligning with them to the letter has been simply a matter of taste. Times change but the essence of the music doesn’t. In any case, some features were already in flux, such as the departure from tempi based on the Baroque Affektenlehre, a musical aesthetic embodying devices acting as emotional prompts: metronome speeds, for example. Then there was the relief of musicians preferring grandstand conditions as a change from the relatively intimate and more common Hausmusik; they would have been in their element today, though it’s a confused picture.

This concert (1808 world première titles in bold) was a joint production by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and was in two parts. The first, by the Orchestra of WNO and the BBC National Chorus of Wales under Carlo Rizzi, the company’s conductor-laureate, performed the Pastoral Symphony (No 6); the Gloria from the Mass in C (soprano Harriet Eyley, mezzo Angharad Lyddon, tenor Alexander Sprague and baritone Steffan Lloyd Owen); the concert aria Ah! Perfido (soloist, soprano Alwyn Mellor); and the Fourth Piano Concerto (soloist Steven Osborne). In part two, conducted by Jaime Martin, the BBC NOW played the Fifth Symphony; the Sanctus and Benedictus from the Mass (same forces as in the first part); the Fantasia for solo piano (Llyr Williams); and the Fantasia for for piano, chorus, and orchestra (Llyr Williams).

There were a few concessions to the old ways but the interpretations were largely modern, Rizzi’s take on the Pastoral Symphony being detailed, Romantic and lyrically protracted – it would be too obvious to say ‘operatic’ – and Martin’s approach to the Fifth bigger and bolder. Ah! Perfido is a scena without an opera, so not so much a bleeding chunk torn from the body operatic as  a dramatic situation looking for a context. At least some of the words are Metastasio’s: Ah! Perfido spergiuro, Barbaro traditor, tu parti? Well, yes, he would bunk off, though a voice as commanding as Mellor’s (she’s sung Brünnhilde for Seattle Opera) might lead us to assume that in non-extremis she could more than hold her own. Men! The chorus was full and sonorous, in the hall at any rate appearing tsunami-like behind the four soloists but, as on the Vienna programme, manifesting itself as part of gobbets torn from the body sacred – twice. Enter the unflappable Llyr Williams to steam through the solo fantasia, daring anyone and anything to faze him and allowing Martin to make of the choral fantasia only slightly less than the sum of its parts. Everyone keeps trying. As fastidious as Williams was in the second half, Osborne in the first displayed his customary trait of elegant articulation while losing nothing of Beethoven’s dynamic ups and downs.

The concert, presented as a celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, will be available for downloading or streaming for thirty days. It might be a useful exercise to compare it with  up-coming re-constructions of 1808 in other places. If anything like this one, they’ll be of a high standard; higher, anyway, than the under-rehearsed and shivering members of Beethoven’s assemblage could have managed. (It’s also worth comparing any concert heard ‘live’ today with its recorded version broadcast later. Receiving gizmos notwithstanding, it’s always interesting.)

That 1808 concert was for Beethoven’s private benefit, given in exchange for his participation in the charity akademies (concerts) at the Theater an der Wien. Then there was the reason why December was chosen, and why only the nobility and the minuscule Viennese middle-class could afford the admission price, and why there were gaps in the orchestra’s ranks which had to be filled by amateurs. They are all non-musical considerations, when the music was all there was to be considered. And what music! 

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Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts prize. He is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review, and the author of five books, including the widely-praised story collection, Funderland. Templar published his story pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy, last year. We was formerly music critic of the South Wales Argus newspaper.